Draft Social Security (Literacy Etc. Skills Training Pilot) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Boswell: The right hon. Gentleman is making a most constructive point. Does he agree that the course has to be appropriate and acceptable to the individual, as well as being appropriate to securing the future employability of that person? In other words, it must be relevant to the person and to that person's chances of being successful in future employment.

Mr. Davis: Yes, indeed, and I had hoped—I doubt that it will happen—that the pilot project would include the possibility of an appeal being made against the appropriateness of a course. Those who want to acquire literacy skills, but who do not think that the required course is satisfactory, should be able to appeal to someone at a higher level in the jobcentre, rather than relying on the more junior officers.

5.50 pm

Malcolm Wicks: We have had a useful and thoughtful debate. The fact that concerns have been expressed does not surprise me. I should be disappointed if it were not so. We need to approach the matter with a great deal of sensitivity.

The hon. Member for Daventry and I have been discussing matters of this kind for some while. At one stage we spoke about the leadership contest in a certain political party. I feared for a moment that he might ask me to devise a political literacy test—perhaps a one nation test—to help him make a decision, but he luckily stuck to the point.

The hon. Gentleman said in passing that our target of helping 750,000 people may not have been ambitious enough. First, it was more ambitious than the last Government's. Secondly, as has been widely acknowledged, it is complex territory. During their time at school, those people may have escaped the school system and may not have the literacy and numeracy even of seven-year-olds. By definition, we are embarking on an ambitious project to help those people. They will now be in their 20s, 30s or 40s, which is why we need a pilot scheme. We shall of course evaluate it carefully: we shall appoint independent evaluators and yes, as is our practice, we shall publish the results of those evaluations.

The time scale is that we hope for initial results in spring 2002. Ministers will then make a decision in principle. Detailed arrangements for implementation will be made and secondary legislation will be drawn up. The House will then have the chance to debate them.

The heart of the issue is whether we need sanctions. I have two answers. The first, for reasons that we have discussed, is that many of our constituents have survived for many years, but often at a pretty poor standard of living, often on benefit and sometimes in low-paid work, and often disguising with great skill their lack of basic skills. For reasons that we can understand, when in the jobcentre, the instinct of many of them is to camouflage that lack of basic skills or to say that they do not want to receive help. We thought about the problem long and hard. We believe that it would help to give those people the extra encouragement—that extra push that we all need from time to time, when we might be reluctant to do something that could be beneficial to us. That is one argument for sanctions.

The other argument is about rights and responsibilities. Many of our constituents would probably agree that if someone has to be on benefit, perhaps for a long time, because they are reluctant to take up existing opportunities to develop their skills, we need a better balance between people exercising their right to continue to claim benefit against their responsibility to help themselves. That is not being punitive or exercising machismo: we are expressing a sense of what is right and wrong, and many people would agree with us.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) asked why the cut-off point is set at the age of 50. The new deal scheme available for those aged 50 plus is voluntary, and we did not think it appropriate—we could always argue the point—for them to be included.

The hon. Member for Upminster asked who determined good cause. An impartial decision maker, to whom all sanctions must be submitted, makes the judgment. Our decision makers are specialist officers of the Employment Service. Also important is the right of appeal to a social security appeal tribunal, which is, as usual, built into the system.

Mr. Boswell: Will the Minister confirm that benefit will continue to be paid in full in cases when appeals are to be heard later?

Malcolm Wicks: I will have to clarify that, I hope before the end of our proceedings, so that I can give the appropriate answer.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Alan Howarth) spoke with great sensitivity about the problems of compulsion. I think that he was persuaded that the pilot was worth our while, but he talked about necessary exceptions. The Employment Service has contracted with providers to ensure that it offers the most suitable and flexible provision for those with especially acute needs.

Alan Howarth: Will my hon. Friend say something about the discretions available to officials in the administration of the scheme?

Malcolm Wicks: Many discretions will be available, as there are obvious examples of people whom none of us would want to force onto a course, such as those with serious learning difficulties. I am surprised that anyone should think that we might have such people in mind. In many other cases, individual judgment and discretion will be necessary and we will enable officers to exercise it appropriately. Ultimately, there is a right of appeal.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is clearly against sanctions. I am a little shocked at that, given that the origins of modern sanctions are in the National Insurance Act 1911, a Liberal Act. So much for my attempt at Lib-Labbery. We will have to beg to differ. He has not asked himself what the alternative is. There is a danger that a voluntary scheme, one that enables people who have not been able to take up opportunities throughout their lives, simply to say no, could subject those people to becoming long-term participants in a benefits regime equated with dependency. Although his instincts are honourable and liberal, I fear that that would mean blunted lives for those adults and their children.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill asked two related questions. We need to treat accordingly and provide special courses for people who might have newly arrived from another country and do not have a basic knowledge of English, or for whom English is a second language. We will not subject those for whom English is not a first language to mainstream courses.

Angela Watkinson: Will the Minister give way?

Malcolm Wicks: I beg the hon. Lady's pardon, but I cannot, as I have no time.

We would enable such people to make use of available courses. My right hon. Friend raised an interesting issue about cultural sensitivity and Muslim women that I understand from my constituency. We will reflect on it.

Jobseeker's allowance continues in full until the decision maker has made his decision. If he imposes a sanction, it stands if the claimant appeals. If the claimant wins the appeal tribunal, arrears will be paid.

We have had an interesting debate. The regulations result from a strategy document that I urge all hon. Members to read. They embody but a small element of the project. The difference that literacy and numeracy make to people who have learned those skills in later life inspires us all to do better in such difficult territory.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 5.

Division No. 1]

AYES
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire
Davis, Mr. Terry
Healey, John
Howarth, Alan
Smith, Angela
Steinberg, Mr. Gerry
Wicks, Malcolm

NOES
Boswell, Mr. Tim
Doughty, Sue
Heath, Mr. David
Watkinson, Angela
Wiggins, Mr. Bill

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Social Security (Literacy etc. Skills Training Pilot) Regulations 2001.

        Committee rose at one minute past Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Griffiths, Mr. Win (Chairman)
Blizzard, Mr.
Boswell, Mr.
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs.
Davies, Mr. Terry
Doughty, Sue
Healey, John
Heath, Mr.
Howarth, Alan
Smith, Angela
Steinberg, Mr.
Watkinson, Angela
Wicks, Malcolm
Wiggins Mr.

 
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Prepared 16 July 2001